In the last decade or so, the top performing state schools in Scotland were predictable from one year to the next. Jordanhill, St Ninians and Williamwood were the jewels in the crown. Now some new contenders are beginning to emerge. What do these top state schools all have in common? They tend to be in the leafy suburbs of urban cities, particularly Glasgow, and draw on solidly middle-class catchment areas. On the other end of the extreme, the lowest performing schools in terms of higher exam results are invariably located in working-class and often rural areas.
The reality is that parents pay a substantial premium to be in a desirable catchment area. These parents often end up paying the equivalent of school fees by way of their house prices. But, compared to a private school, they are left with a house to show for their initial investment after their child has finished up their schooling – a house that has most probably only increased in value. For those who can afford it, it’s clearly a win-win situation.
There is a significant amount of family labour, time and expense that goes into the making of the middle-class child, who’s at once academic and cultured. These accomplishments, and the so-called soft skills that go along with them, go in their favour when it comes time to apply for universities and enter the job market. Particularly for some of the top universities, A grades are no longer enough as they increasingly look for well-rounded applicants with several non-academic achievements.
The fact that schools which are largely comprised of middle-class children are performing better than schools with a majority working-class intake is not a coincidence – it’s because social class is directly related to educational outcome. Class is the elephant in the room. Most people “in the know” are fully aware that class drives educational outcome, but few politicians are willing to address it. They instead focus on what happens in the schools themselves rather than acknowledging the system of familial support outside of it for more privileged pupils and the lack of such for less privileged pupils. Of course, class is among the most difficult and complicated of issues to deal with. You can’t blame or stop middle-class parents for wanting the best for their children, and you can’t easily encourage working-class parents to take up middle-class attitudes and values, either.
Would it reap rewards to replicate this network of familial support and know-how for less privileged students? The best method of doing so is a matter for the politicians and educators to debate. In any case, there must be some effort made to minimise the disparity of results that we see between the best and worst performing schools in the Scottish state sector. Professor Danny Dorling, for instance, has revealingly argued that children now have less potential to be socially mobile than their parents or grandparents had. Rather than focusing on qualifications alone, we should clearly be trying to replicate something of the middle-class network of support that many working-class pupils are currently missing out on. This is asking a lot of educators who are already stretched, especially in areas of social deprivation, but ultimately, we all lose out on talent and potential if working-class students are not given the educational opportunities they deserve.
Dylan Jardine is a researcher at the University of Glasgow.
Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of The Herald.